Palermo, Italy — The investigators for Italy’s antidrug unit were used to measuring the flow of hashish to European shores one speedboat or Jet Ski at a time.
So when the phone rang with a tip that an enormous freighter loaded with hashish was plying international waters south of Sicily — bound for Libya, hundreds of miles to the east of the usual quick drug route to Spain — Francesco Amico, a senior investigator, immediately knew something odd was going on.
Not just odd, but huge: When two Italian Navy warships eventually stopped the freighter, the Adam, off the Libyan coast on April 12, 2013, agents found a terrified Syrian crew and 15 metric tons of hashish — a stash many multiples larger than Italian officials had ever seen.
The Italian officials had stumbled on a lucrative new trafficking route that stretched far to the east along the coast of Northern Africa — and always led to Libya, in an area fought over by competing armed groups that included ISIS.
Investigators have sought to understand what happens to the enormous shipments, they are struggling with a mystery that has prompted intriguing questions but offered few answers.
One thing they know is that the drugs were not ending up in Libya. The drug producers consistently use individualized branding logos, like a scorpion or a dollar sign. That helped investigators pick up the drug shipments’ trail again after they left Libya, traveling along an overland route through Egypt and then on to Europe through the Balkans.
But the investigators are still not sure what happened as the drugs passed through. From interrogations and surveillance, they know the route crossed territory that until a few weeks ago was claimed by ISIS — which has taxed shipments of drugs and other goods in Syria and Iraq.
That, in particular, led the Italian drug investigators to start asking questions they never expected to confront: Could ISIS or some other group be profiting from the drug route by taxing it? Was the militant-driven chaos in Libya providing an opportunity by drug traffickers to pick a route the authorities wouldn’t suspect, or were the Libyan-based groups more directly involved? The investigation continues.
“Once it reaches Libya, we lose track of it,” said Lt. Col. Giuseppe Campobasso, who heads the antidrug unit in Sicily of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian financial police force that led the search for the ships.
For years, the Italian investigators had tracked small shipments of hashish, around 100 kilograms at a time, coming to Spain in boats that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar — a narrow passage that ferries cross in under 35 minutes. In 2007, Spain began installing cameras up and down its southern coastline, but at least at first, the hashish traffic continued in the usual way.
With Europe’s eyes trained on small-boat traffic coming from the south, at first no one noticed the cargo ships that were taking a big dogleg to the east.
Giacomo Catania, an inspector with the Guardia di Finanza who was in charge of storing the incoming drugs, explained another oddity: The enormous cargo ships they seized — some as long as a soccer field and designed to carry fleets of automobiles or cargo containers — were empty except for the drugs.
Considering that hashish sells for €10,000, about $11,200, per kilogram once it reaches Europe’s streets, the Adam’s cargo alone was worth at least €150 million. And shipments seized later were even bigger — including a load of hashish aboard the freighter Aberdeen, boarded in the summer of 2014, that was estimated to be worth €420 million — or about $472 million.
After seizing the Adam, investigators in Italy interrogated its crew members, who insisted that they did not know that hashish was in the 591 plastic bags investigators had found on the ship’s deck.
The ship’s captain testified that he believed he was transporting humanitarian aid, brought to the ship by the crew of a speedboat that approached them off the coast and insisted that they take the bags, according to a transcript of his statement to investigators.
To learn more, the investigators — who have decades of experience dealing with the Sicilian Mafia — decided to bug the cells where the six crew members were imprisoned. Over months of surveillance, Mr. Amico began to discern the outlines of the trafficking route, and the mystery of the militant stronghold in coastal Libya it passed through.
Since the ouster of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, stretches of Libya along the coastline in the eastern region of Cyrenaica had become a battleground for competing militant groups. By 2014, that included the ISIS branch in Libya, which at various times had footholds in the cities of Benghazi, Derna and especially Surt, which has partly fallen to pro-government forces.
Italian officials believe that those cities were all destinations for some of the drug ships, although the navigation units of other seized vessels indicate that they were headed to the Libyan port of Tobruk, which is controlled by a rebel group fighting ISIS.
Investigators say they believe that at least in some cases, the terrorist group would have been able to exact a tax in return for the drugs’ passage. That matches ISIS’ business practice in its stronghold in Syria and Iraq, where according to one study by IHS Country Risk, 7 percent of the group’s revenue last year was from the production, taxation and trafficking of drugs.
But officials concede that they cannot be certain what role, if any, ISIS might play in the hashish shipments.
The New York Times